Skip to main content

Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

See other formats

rebuild. Two years later not a trace of the disaster remained.
We recall that 1842, the year of the fibre, was also the year in
which, thanks to the good offices of Gauss, Lobatchewsky was
elected a foreign correspondent of the Royal Society of Gottin-
gen for his creation of non-Euclidean geometry. Although it
seems incredible that any man so excessively burdened with
teaching and administration as Lobatchewsky was, could find
the tune to do even one piece of mediocre scientific work, he had
actually, somehow or another, made the opportunity to create
one of the great masterpieces of all mathematics and a, land-
mark in human thought. He had worked at it off and on for
twenty years or more. His first public communication on the
subject, to the Physical-Mathematical Society of Kazan, was
made in 1826. He might have been speaking in the middle of the
Sahara Desert for all the echo he got. Gauss did not hear of the
work till about 1840.
Another episode in Lobatchewsky's busy life shows that it
was not only in mathematics that he was far ahead of his time.
The Russia of 1830 was probably no more sanitary than that of
a century later, and it may be assumed that the same disregard
of personal hygiene which filled the German soldiers in
World War I with an amazed disgust for their unfortunate
Russian prisoners, and which to-day causes the industrious
proletariat to use the public parks and playgrounds of Moscow
as vast and convenient latrines, distinguished the luckless inha-
bitants of Kazan in Lobatchewsky's day when the cholera
epidemic found them richly prepared for a prolonged visitation.
The germ theory of disease was still in the future in 1830*
although progressive minds had long suspected that filthy
habits had more to do with the scourge of the pestilence than
the anger of the Lord.
On the arrival of the cholera in Kazan the priests did what
they could for their smitten people, herding them into the
churches for united supplication, absolving the dying and
burying the dead, but never once suggesting that a shovel
might be useful for any purpose other than digging graves.
Realizing that the situation in the town was hopeless, Lobat-
chewsky induced his faculty to bring their families to the